WEEK 52 — December 30, 2015

MIDWEEK MEDITATIONS:
ADVENT / CHRISTMAS

 

week 52

 

When Joseph Came to Bethlehem

 

This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit. . . . Joseph her husband was a righteous man . . . . He did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him. . . . So Joseph also went up . . . to Bethlehem.
Matthew 1:18, 19a, 24b; Luke 2:4ab

In an earlier version of these Bible-based poetic meditations, Joseph was included in the section subtitled “Fathers.” If you believe (as I do) in the virgin birth of Jesus Christ, perhaps you might be wondering why.

Perhaps you’re also wondering how Joseph connects with the over-all emphasis which MIDWEEK MEDITATIONS gives to the genealogy of Jesus. How could it be said that Joseph was counted among those earthly ancestors of our Lord and Saviour?

Because the Bible itself says so. In Matthew 13:55 Jesus is identified as “the carpenter’s son.” In Luke 3:23 we read that Jesus “was the son, so it was thought, of Joseph.” Mary herself, when she found twelve-year-old Jesus in the Temple, referred to Joseph as “your father” (Luke 2:48).

Apparently the miraculous circumstances surrounding the birth of Jesus were not widely known during his earthly lifetime. Mark and John never mention the virgin birth in their Gospels; neither does Paul in his letters, except perhaps in the veiled reference that Jesus was “born of a woman” (Galatians 4:4). Most people who knew Jesus in the flesh assumed that Joseph was his father.

You know and I know that Joseph was not the father of Jesus, . . . and Joseph himself knew it, too.

This fact points up the humility which must have been a major part of Joseph’s character. He was willing to obey God’s command even when it was hard and humiliating. He was willing to hold back from normal sexual relations with his lawful wife, in order to avoid any possible suspicion about the origin of the Holy Child being carried in Mary’s womb. When Joseph led Mary on that difficult trip to Bethlehem, he had not yet been able to enjoy any of the fleshly rewards of being a husband.

Some people call Joseph “the forgotten man of the Christmas story.” Certainly we seem to make a lot more of Mary and her Baby, of the angels, the shepherds, the Wise Men. Yet Joseph played a vital part in the nativity narrative. His important role is highlighted in the Bible-based poetic meditation that follows.

Joseph must have been a practical man. He worked with wood, not words. He knew hammers and saws, not high-flown concepts. This meditation, written in the style and rhythm of an old-fashioned ballad, emphasizes the practical steps Joseph must have taken in preparing the way for the birth of the blessed Babe in Bethlehem.

When Joseph came to Bethlehem,
the night lay damp and chill;
he found no room, no inn, no home
for Mary, worn and ill that night,
for Mary, worn and ill.

If Joseph were a carpenter,
no high-born man was he.
He pushed therefore the stable door,
the stable for to see that night,
the stable for to see.

There Joseph saw sweet-smelling straw
within the stable piled.
‘Twas found at last: a place to rest
for Joseph’s Mary mild that night,
for Joseph’s Mary mild.

So Joseph led the beasts aside;
he filled the crib with hay.
On straw for bed her weary head
did Joseph’s Mary lay that night,
did Joseph’s Mary lay.

Good watch he kept; he never slept;
he waited for the morn.
How great his joy to see the Boy
of his sweet Mary born that night,
of his sweet Mary born!

Thank you, Lord, for Joseph, and for all those others like him in the family of faith who perhaps never receive the honor that is properly due them. Amen.

Copyright © 2015 by Perry Thomas

WEEK 51 — December 23, 2015

MIDWEEK MEDITATIONS:
ADVENT / CHRISTMAS

 

week 51

 

Mary and Elizabeth

 

When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. In a loud voice she exclaimed: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” Luke 1:41-43

Has there ever in the history of the world been a more poignant meeting between two women than the meeting of Mary and Elizabeth referred to in the verses quoted above?

Elizabeth was old; Mary was young. Elizabeth lived in Judea; Mary lived in Galilee. Elizabeth’s husband was a priest; Mary had already been espoused to a carpenter, but their marriage had not yet been consummated.

What could two such different women have had in common?

For one thing, they were kinfolks. Mary was from the tribe of Judah through the line of David; Elizabeth could claim priestly descent through the tribe of Levi all the way back to Aaron, brother of Moses. Yet in some way the two women were related.

But that was not the most important thing they had in common: They were both expecting. And each of them knew that her baby would be a boy . . . a very special boy.

God had sent angelic messengers down to Judea and to Galilee. To Zechariah the Priest the angel had foretold wondrous things for the boy to be born of Elizabeth his wife, who had hitherto been barren. To Mary and also to Joseph her intended husband, the angel had foretold even more wondrous things for the Boy to be born of Mary.

What do you suppose the two expectant mothers talked about when they got together? The first chapter of Luke gives us a bit of their conversation (a part of which has been repeated by devout worshipers for many centuries). But since Mary’s visit lasted for three months; surely she and Elizabeth had a lot more than that to say to each other.

With the wisdom of years, did Elizabeth become a sort of mentor for her much-younger relative? Sometimes an older woman can help a younger woman in ways no one else can. (Have you had an opportunity to observe the marvelous work being done by such mentoring ministries as Christian Women’s Job Corps?)

Any expectant mother wonders what her unborn child will be like. Considering the angelic prophecies both couples had received, surely Mary and Elizabeth must have had even higher hopes than most mothers do. Yet Mary and Elizabeth must have felt a measure of anxiety as well.

Those divinely-sent predictions about Elizabeth’s son and about Mary’s Son certainly came true. Yet . . . could either mother have possibly dreamed what heartbreak would also come to her? In her worst nightmares, could either mother have foreseen what would happen to John the Baptist and to Jesus?

The following Bible-based poetic meditation tries to take us inside the minds of Mary and Elizabeth as they looked toward the future with such eager expectation. It also tries to relate their particular hopes and fears, to the hopes and fears of every mother who ever gives birth to a child.

Mary and Elizabeth —
they each brought forth a boy.
Could they have guessed what that would mean
of comfort and of joy?

Mary and Elizabeth —
each birthed a firstborn son.
Could they have guessed the agony
they’d feel when all was done?

Mary and Elizabeth —
one watched her firstborn die.
The other’s boy beheaded . . . O,
what mother would not cry?

Mary and Elizabeth —
could they have known the ending,
would they have welcomed each her son
when new life was beginning?

Mary and Elizabeth —
each held to her belief.
What mother ever knows what child
will bring her joy or grief?

Lord God, bringing a child — any child — into the world is an act of faith. Give us humble, devoted parents who will nurture their sons and daughters for an uncertain future. Amen.

Copyright © 2015 by Perry Thomas

WEEK 50 — December 16, 2015

MIDWEEK MEDITATIONS:
WIVES and HUSBANDS

 

week 50

 

Ananias and Sapphira

 

Barnabas . . . sold a field he owned and put the money at the apostles’ feet. . . . Now a man named Ananias, together with his wife Sapphira, also sold a piece of property. With his wife’s full knowledge he kept back part of the money for himself, but brought the rest and put it at the apostles’ feet. Acts 4:36b; 5:1-2

Perhaps no other excuse for non-churchgoing has been repeated more often than this: “There are hypocrites in the church.” And perhaps no other story of hypocrites in the church is as strange as the account of Ananias and Sapphira, found in chapters 4 and 5 of the Acts of the Apostles.

Imitating the good example of Barnabas (see the verses quoted above), this husband and wife sold some property and donated the money from the sale to help their fellow church members in Jerusalem. Unlike Barnabas, however, they kept back some of the proceeds from the sale, while claiming to have given all of it. When the Apostle Peter exposed this hypocrisy, Ananias fell down dead. When Sapphira came in three hours later telling the same lie as her husband, the same thing happened to her.

Why was this strange, somber story included in inspired Scripture?

Why were Ananias and Sapphira punished so severely for their lack of honesty?

What would happen if all hypocrites, all liars in the family of faith were to be dealt with in the same summary way?

Perhaps we can find a key to the answers in Peter’s blistering denunciation of the guilty husband and wife. He said that they had agreed to test God’s Holy Spirit (Acts 5:9), that they had lied to the Spirit (verse 3), that they had even lied to God (verse 4). But the most telling point in Peter’s diatribe is, why they had done all of this: It was because Satan had filled their hearts (verse 3).

Can Satan fill the hearts of true believers?

Were Ananias and Sapphira really followers of Christ or not?

Sadly enough, “hypocrites in the church” were there in the beginning twenty centuries ago. They are there now. Probably they will still be there when Jesus comes again; did not Christ himself relate a parable about weeds and wheat growing together? According to Matthew 13:24-30, Jesus said that both should be left alone till harvest at the end of time. Yet we dare not let this make us complacent about juggling our accounts before God. Remember Ananias and Sapphira!

Probably Ananias was known to his contemporaries as a wise and prudent money manager. Read this Bible-based poetic meditation, placed on the lips of Sapphira after her husband had already left home with their less-than-honest offering:

Ananias and Sapphira:
Maybe you have heard our fame?
We’re among the biggest givers
in the church . . . at least in name.

Barnabas jumped in before us:
Selling all his Cyprus land,
to Jerusalem returning
with the proceeds in his hand.

How the congregation blessed him!
How they praised him for his gift!
(Ananias asked in private:
“Has the man no sense of thrift?”)

Recognized for gracious giving:
This appealed to us as well.
Yet . . . how could we jeopardize our future
when it came our turn to sell?

“Let’s be wise,” said Ananias.
“Though we give a large amount,
let’s hold back enough to live on.
Who will audit our account?”

Thus our strategy developed;
our financial plan was sound.
Who would know how great our profit,
when the offering time came round?

Ananias left this morning,
taking money to be laid
at the feet of Christ’s apostles.
What a sacrifice we’ve made!

It’s been three hours since he left me;
why should giving take so long?
I’ll go satisfy my questions:
What could possibly go wrong?

O God, perhaps a part of our honesty in filing income tax returns has to do with the possibility, however slight, of an audit. Help us to be even more honest in weighing our motives and in bringing our tithes and offerings, since there is no doubt whatsoever that You will audit all of our thoughts and all of our deeds. Amen.

Copyright © 2015 by Perry Thomas

WEEK 49 — December 9, 2015

MIDWEEK MEDITATIONS:
WIVES and HUSBANDS

 

week 49

 

Will Wonders Never Cease? : Elizabeth and Zechariah

 

In the time of Herod king of Judea there was a priest named
Zechariah . . . ; his wife Elizabeth was also a descendant of Aaron.
Both of them were upright in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commandments and regulations blamelessly. But they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren; and they were both well along in years.
Luke 1:5a, 5c-7

It’s hard to imagine a holier couple than Elizabeth and Zechariah. Both of them could trace their honorable ancestry back to the early years of the Hebrew people. Elizabeth was descended from Aaron, older brother of Moses and the first Jewish high priest. Zechariah came from the tribe of Levi, the official priestly line.

Notice in the Scripture verses quoted above how many different ways Elizabeth and Zechariah are described as being good, holy, pious people. You won’t find many Bible characters who get a better recommendation than they do.

Yet there was something absent in their lives. Read again the verses quoted above. Can you tell what was missing?

Yes, of course, they had no children. There were no high-pitched voices in their house, no running feet in their courtyard. But perhaps something else was missing as well.

Judging from the Biblical description of Zechariah the Priest and his wife Elizabeth, do you get much sense of joy? Or rather, do you seem to see a portrait of two people who plodded through the years into later life, keeping all the rules, doing all the right things, yet never feeling that special spark, that life-giving lift which comes from the joy of the Lord?

I may be misjudging Zechariah and Elizabeth. Perhaps they were not at all as I have imagined them to be. Yet — notice carefully what happened. It came Zechariah’s turn to offer the sacrifice of incense in the Temple of the Lord. If there could ever have been a time when Zechariah might have hoped that something miraculous would happen, something that would break through the dull routine of life as he had always known it, surely this would have been the moment.

Yet when an angel of the Lord brought him the great news that he would at last become the father of a son, what was his reaction?
He questioned the angel’s joyful tidings. He did not see how a special visitation of God could become a reality in his case. For his lack of belief, Zechariah the Priest was temporarily struck dumb.

What do you suppose this did to Elizabeth’s relationship with Zechariah? Would you say it’s always easy being the wife of a very godly man? Did Zechariah customarily have a lot to say? Did he sometimes try to order his wife around, making sure she was following “all the Lord’s commandments and regulations blamelessly”? Was it actually something of a relief to Elizabeth when Zechariah stopped talking for nine long months?

Yet in some way the two of them must have still communicated with each other. Elizabeth knew that the little son so miraculously given to them was to be named John. She knew it even before Zechariah wrote “His name is John” on a tablet, even before Zechariah’s faculty of speech was restored.

Some of these conjectures about Elizabeth and Zechariah may be fanciful. Certainly Elizabeth became a loving hostess when her young relative Mary came from Galilee with incredible news. Certainly Zechariah welcomed the birth of their long-awaited son; his beautiful words of praise ended in a prophecy that the newborn boy would guide their feet “into the path of peace” (Luke 1:79).

If we can’t be sure about these might-have-been ideas concerning the character of Zechariah or concerning Elizabeth’s relationship with her husband, then why have such thoughts been written here?

Only to help us stop and think. Zechariah and Elizabeth were not stick figures. They were real people, with all the failings and contradictions that are a part of you and me and all the people we know. Yet in his infinite wisdom God deemed them worthy to become the parents of John the Baptist, the appointed Forerunner of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

Zechariah’s lost his voice!
(Will wonders never cease?)
I’m his wife; I should rejoice,
for now we’ll have some peace.

I’m with child! How can it be?
(Will wonders never cease?)
Can such joy be meant for me?
And will our tribe increase?

Mary’s told me all the news!
(Will wonders never cease?)
She’s to bear the Savior, who’s
to bring us sweet release.

Now at last I nurse a son.
(Will wonders never cease?)
Zechariah named him “John.”
He’ll blaze our path to peace.

O Father, sometimes I want to echo the words of the little boy who prayed, “Lord, please make all the bad people good and all the good people nice.” Amen.

Copyright © 2015 by Perry Thomas

WEEK 48 — December 2, 2015

MIDWEEK MEDITATIONS:
WIVES and HUSBANDS

 

week 48

 

Hosea and Gomer

 

The Lord said to me, “Go, show your love to your wife again, though she is loved by another and is an adulteress. Love her as the Lord loves the Israelites, though they turn to other gods.”
Hosea 3:1abc

Not long ago we were saddened, as were many of our friends who (like us) have strong connections with the great land of Indonesia. Among those in our local mostly-Christian fellowship was an American husband, his Indonesian wife, and two dark-eyed sons — one in the fragile years of early adolescence, the other a few years younger.

What made us sad was, hearing about the disaster that had struck this dear family. There were so many charges and counter-charges floating around the internet that it was hard to tell for sure what had really happened, but it seemed as if the wife had been untrue to her husband. We wept for both of them, as well as for their two boys who must have felt torn and confused.

It’s always hard when a family fractures. It’s especially hard when that family is numbered among the People of God.

That fractured family of not long ago caused me to think again about another fractured family of many long years ago: Hosea and Gomer and their three children. If we read the Book of Hosea carefully, it sounds as if there may have been questions about Gomer’s sexual morality even before their wedding day. Yet Hosea the Prophet loved her, and they got married.

Their first child, a boy, was named Jezreel. Their second, a girl, was named Lo-Ruhamah; read Hosea 1:6-7 to learn what that Hebrew name means, and to get a hint of why Hosea called her that. The third child, another boy, was named Lo-Ammi, meaning “Not My People,” for by that time the heartbroken husband felt sure that his wife had betrayed him with another man.

The rest of the story is not crystal-clear in Scripture, because Hosea’s love for a less-than-worthy woman also becomes a parable representing God’s love for a less-than-worthy nation. Yet it seems plain that eventually there was some sort of reconciliation. The prophet paid someone to release Gomer into his care once more. He tried to shield his weak-willed wife from the temptations that had led her so far astray (see Hosea 3:1-3).

Can you possibly imagine the emotions that must have churned through Hosea’s heart and soul?

The following Bible-based poetic meditation tries to speak with the voice of this remarkably longsuffering husband. As you read prayerfully, think of fractured families or at-risk marriages that you know about. Remind yourself that the Lord still loves each and every person involved.

How can I still love Gomer,
accept her back again?
She’s cheated, lied, betrayed me;
that’s how it all began.

I knew her past was shady,
yet loved her all the same.
I took her as my partner,
gave her a home, a name.

Our firstborn son came quickly;
we called him Jezreel.
I soon began to wonder:
The months began to tell.

Our second was a daughter.
By then my doubts had grown.
I named her Lo-Ruhamah,
not sure she was my own.

Our third child made me certain
that Gomer was untrue.
I called the boy Lo-Ammi;
he was not mine, I knew.

She then left home entirely
to follow wanton ways —
left me for other lovers,
left me with three to raise.

Ah! How can I forgive her
or love her as before?
She’ll play me false forever;
she’ll break my heart once more.

And yet . . . the Lord has told me:
“Your wife you must reclaim.
If I love sinful people,
can you not do the same?”

And so I went and bought her
for silver and for grain.
I tried to cleanse my memory
of bitterness and pain.

I can’t say it’s been easy:
Forgiveness rarely is.
But I’ve redeemed my family, . . .
as God has ransomed His.

O gracious heavenly Father, cause forgiveness and reconciliation to grow in the family of faith as a plant grows in fertile soil. Amen.

Copyright © 2015 by Perry Thomas